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MERCER: We have a real Opportunity to be much better in our state

PIERRE -- In South Dakota we need to become more selfish about high school graduation. We need to recognize that the students receiving, and not receiving, diplomas have not only their individual futures to shape but our collective futures as soc...

PIERRE -- In South Dakota we need to become more selfish about high school graduation. We need to recognize that the students receiving, and not receiving, diplomas have not only their individual futures to shape but our collective futures as societies as well.

They will decide in the next 20 years whether our communities grow or decline, whether we have dentists and air conditioning specialists, whether we have teachers and bankers, whether we have churches and farms, whether we have grocery stores and ranches, whether we have doctors and funeral homes, whether we have more jail cells and good roads.

The list goes on and on. As of December there were 10,070 students in grade 12 in our public and non-public schools. If the trends holds true from the recent years, we already know two important things about them.

Approximately 88 to 89 percent of those seniors are graduating this spring.

And of those 8,800 to 8,900 young men and women who have earned diplomas, somewhere between 1,100 and 1,200 of them will receive state government's Opportunity scholarships.

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None of those numbers is strong enough in a place where we must grow our own. The Opportunity scholarship was designed by the state Board of Regents, whose members govern the state universities, as a tool for South Dakota to retain more of our high school graduates at institutions of higher learning within our state.

The regents' annual Opportunity report tells quite a story.

The scholarships became available for the 2004 high school graduating class. There were 828 recipients that first semester and a total of 840 that first academic year. Of those, 56 percent retained their eligibility through the four full years to obtain their full $5,000 scholarships ($1,000 annually for three years and $2,000 in year four).

That success/failure rate proved to be typical, as 59 percent and 56 percent retained eligibility from the following two high-school graduating classes in 2005 and 2006.

There have been 4,575 new recipients since the 2007-2008 academic year, and 1,294 of them so far have lost eligibility. We can expect that 1,294 to become larger, because the general trends so far show 72 percent remain eligible into their second year, 63 percent into their third year and 58 percent into their fourth year.

Through the fall 2010 college freshman class, there have been 7,342 high school graduates who qualified. A score of at least 24 on the ACT is one of the criteria. The year before the scholarship program began, 22 percent of the high school graduates in South Dakota met that ACT threshold. For 2010, the number was up to 29 percent.

Those figures have interesting numbers behind them. While the percentage has gone up, the number of students scoring 24 or better has been somewhat flat. Here's why.

There were 10,591 high school graduates in 2003 and 2,334 scored 24 or above. Each year since then the number of graduates has dropped. It hit a low in 2010 of 8,697, with 2,493 of those scoring 24 or better.

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The scholarship's availability might be helping steer more of those 24-or-higher students into state universities. The number in 2003 was 1,084. That number went up gradually to 1,322 in 2007. Since then the number fell back somewhat to 1,287 and 1,272, before bouncing back to 1,300 in 2010.

One of then-Gov. Mike Rounds' goals in his 2010E program was to double the number of Opportunity recipients by the year 2010. That goal wasn't reached, like many of the others.

Through 2010 there was a 42 percent increase, from 828 that first fall to 1,176 in fall 2010. The 1,176 was a record, slightly above the 1,135 of fall 2007, the 1,159 of fall 2008 and the 1,118 of fall 2009.

(Start Optional Trim)

South Dakota State University, the largest-enrollment campus public or private in our state, has seen 40.2 percent of Opportunity winners enroll there. Next is University of South Dakota at 20.6 percent, followed by the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology at 8.3 percent and private Augustana College at 8.2 percent.

Black Hills State University has enrolled 5.5 percent, Northern State University 4.3 percent, Dakota State University 3.9 percent and private University of Sioux Falls 3.5 percent.

The remainder is split among the four public technical institutes at Watertown, Mitchell, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, and four other privately operated universities and one technical school.

(End Optional Trim)

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The five counties with the highest percentage of high school graduates receiving Opportunity awards are Aurora 25 percent, Lyman 23 percent, Clark 22 percent, Sully 21 percent and Hutchinson 21 percent.

There are a handful of counties that have sent forth almost no Opportunity scholars, regardless of population. Shannon has one so far, Todd three, Campbell four, Ziebach six, Mellette seven and Buffalo none. Shannon and Todd had no graduates who maintained Opportunity eligibility into the just -completed 2010-2011 academic year

The program was estimated to cost just over $4 million this year. According to a regents calculation, the buying power of the original $1,000 for a freshman in 2004 has been eroded by inflation to $834 by 2010.

What can we take from these facts?

First, the scholarship seems to work. Second, there appear to be ways for it to be better.

It would make sense to find out whether Aurora, Lyman, Clark, Sully and Hutchinson counties' results are a statistical blip or there's something working in those schools that could be adopted and adapted elsewhere.

And it would make sense to find out more about the low participation in Shannon, Todd, Ziebach, Mellette and Buffalo counties.

Overall it would make sense to develop strategy and tactics for all school districts to use. While the Rounds administration set a goal, there was nothing put in place for reaching it.

New Gov. Dennis Daugaard plans to give the state Board of Economic Development millions of dollars annually for grants to projects, assuming the new law isn't overturned in the 2012 election. There certainly would be money enough to increase the value of the scholarship.

State university tuition and mandatory fees climbed 6.9 percent for the coming academic year, after annual hikes of 4.6 percent, 5.9 percent, 7.9 percent and 6.3 percent. That means, in reality, the value of the scholarship has decreased a raw 31.6 percent without compounding.

Let's find ways to get more seniors with diplomas across those stages in the springs ahead, and find ways for more of them to achieve well enough for the Opportunity.

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